Why South Korea is rewriting its history books

By Stephen Evans
BBC News, Seoul

  • Published
South Korean retired teachers stage a rally against the government's announcement confirming the policy to have middle and high school students taught history only with government-issued textbooks outside the government complex in Seoul on 3 November 2015.Image source, AFP/Getty
Image caption,
South Korean retired teachers were part of the demonstration last month

School books aren't often the subject of street protest, but in South Korea a row over a government plan to write a single history textbook brought protesters to the streets of Seoul last month, with police using water cannons to disperse them.

History here is not a dry subject confined to academia but a topic that exercises the passions of South Koreans.

Currently, a range of books by different academics are on offer in the country's schools, but the centre-right government thinks they are biased to the left and wants to replace them with a version it approves.

"The current textbooks have some mistakes so we want to revise them and correct the mistakes," the official in charge of the project, Park Sung-Min, told the BBC. "The authors don't want to change their point of view, so the government will make an accurate textbook".

One minister said that school books should teach "the proud history of South Korea, which has achieved both democratisation and industrialisation in the shortest time in world history".

Another conservative minister alleged the current versions of history were too uncritical of North Korea: "One textbook, for example, used the term 'dictatorial' only twice when writing about North Korea, but as many as 28 times about South Korea."

Image source, AP
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The Korean War ended with an armistice and the South is still technically at war with the North

The government's plan has caused outrage both inside the country and around the world.

Prof Chung-in Moon of Yonsei University in Seoul told the BBC: "Why should we have one version of a text-book? We need multiple views so students can choose. History can be subject to multiple interpretations."

There are wider questions about what the study of history is for, according to Owen Miller, a Korean studies scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London University.

"Is history simply a tool for establishing loyalty to the nation or is it about producing critical citizens who can draw lessons?" he said.

Media caption,

Steve Evans reports on the ongoing debate in South Korea, after government plans to rewrite history in a text book

Presidential controversy

The government's plan is so contentious because the current president, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of a previous president, Park Chung-hee.

The elder President Park, who was assassinated in 1979, is a controversial figure.

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Park Chung-hee, the former president, is a controversial figure in South Korea but credited with modernising the economy

As a military officer, he led a coup which took power in 1961. Extreme brutality was used by the security agencies under his presidency.

But he is also widely credited with driving through South Korea's super-fast industrialisation. He ordered the country's rich to invest their money in industries which he dictated they should build from scratch.

President Park is, accordingly, celebrated as the founder of South Korean prosperity. At his birthplace, for example, there is a shrine with a huge statue (reminiscent, incidentally, of the style of statue used to idolise leaders in North Korea).

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The statue is located in the late president's birthplace in North Gyeongsang

But the plaques alongside it make no mention of President Park's dark side.

His record in the war when he served the Japanese is absent - and collaboration with the Japanese colonialists remains a hot issue in Korea. No pictures of him in a military uniform are apparent.

Critics of the government today fear that the new history textbook will have a similar, sanitised view of the past. And they assert that the plan is dear to the current president who wants to whitewash her father's legacy, scrubbing away the dark spots.

Opposing views

There are other areas of contention where the left and right are divided over how to read history.

The causes of the Korean War, for example, are disputed. For the right, it was started unambiguously by North Korea in an unprovoked aggression.

For some on the left, it was more complicated, with an incipient civil war over issues like land ownership already underway before the North invaded in 1950.

Image source, AFP/Getty Images
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The origins of the Korean War, which displaced many civilians, is a subject of contention among those who disagree on history

On this leftist view, there is some sympathy for North Korea, which is seen in parts of the left as a victim of the same civil war rather than as the outright aggressor.

South Korea is not alone in having a battle over history in the classroom.

Japan is having a very similar row, with conservatives wanting the wartime brutalities of Japanese soldiers downplayed and the status of disputed territories asserted in the classroom as being of undisputed Japanese sovereignty.

Image source, AFP/Getty Images
Image caption,
The controversial Yasukuni shrine in Japan commemorates the country's war dead

History in this part of the world is alive and contentious.

As it is in Texas where the state's board of education approves books for use in classrooms. There are hearings which are often emotive, with right and left disagreeing profoundly on the interpretation of events like slavery.

This year, a 15-year-old student noticed that slaves were referred to in one textbook as workers. He took a picture of the page, put it on the internet and the image went viral.

There is now a debate in the state about whether professional historians should get more say in the selection of approved textbooks.

In his novel 1984, George Orwell cited a fictitious totalitarian government slogan: "Who controls the past controls the future."

South Korea, Japan and Texas where the current rows over textbooks are taking place are not totalitarian states. In truly despotic places governments control history teaching completely.

But in all three places, opponents of government fear an erosion of democracy.

History matters. It's about politics and it provokes all the passions of politics. They know that in Seoul, Tokyo and Austin.